Five years ago, after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs and that he was a victim of a tainted vial of vitamin B-12 given to him by a teammate, shortstop Miguel Tejada.
This week, as the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America consider Palmeiro in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, he said that he hopes the 500-plus voters will give him a break and forgive a mistake that he made in the final season of his 20-year career.
"I was telling the truth then, and I am telling the truth now,'' Palmeiro, 46, said in a phone interview with SI.com. "I don't know what else I can say. I have never taken steroids. For people who think I took steroids intentionally, I'm never going to convince them. But I hope the voters judge my career fairly and don't look at one mistake.''
Palmeiro's is the most provocative story among this year's Hall of Fame candidates. His accomplishments are loaded with first-ballot Cooperstown cachet. His 569 home runs and 3,020 hits put him with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray, each a Hall of Famer, as the only players in the 3,000-hit, 500-home run club.
But BBWAA voters are leery of Palmeiro's explanation for his positive test that led to a 10-game suspension in August 2005, five months after he wagged his finger in Congress and said under oath in a U.S. House hearing on steroids that he had never taken steroids.
"I never played for the Hall of Fame," Palmeiro told SI.com on Tuesday. "I only played to win and have fun. But, yes, now the Hall of Fame is important to me. Why wouldn't I want to be there? It would mean more than anything to me. I hope they don't hold me out for one mistake at the end of my career.''
Palmeiro described the 2005 season as a "nightmare,'' and said that he doesn't know if he'll ever get over the pain. He said that while Tejada gave him the vitamin B-12, Palmeiro's wife, Lynne, injected him with the liquid vitamin.
"And, we did it only once. Miguel Tejada had nothing to do with it, and I'm sorry people said that I was blaming him,'' Palmeiro said. "It was my mistake. I should have known what I was putting into my body. I am accountable, and I have paid the price. But, it wasn't steroids. Vitamin B-12 gives you energy. It doesn't enhance your performance.''
Palmeiro said that Tejada is like a brother to him and the two talk often. He said that Tejada understood the situation.
Three days before Major League Baseball announced his suspension, Palmeiro found comfort in making a call to President George W. Bush at the White House. (Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, had called Palmeiro to congratulate him on his 3,000th hit.)
"I had a number for him, and it was a very difficult call to make because he had been so supportive of me,'' Palmeiro told SI.com. "I didn't want him to read about it in the newspaper or hear it on television.
"He's always given me good advice, and that day he told me that he was behind me. He told me to just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. He told me to tell the truth and stick with it.''
After the 2005 season, Palmeiro returned home to Arlington, Texas, and spent time with his sons, Patrick and Preston, while dealing with the pain of losing his credibility.
"It was a time to forget,'' Palmeiro told SI.com. "I tried not to think about it. Baseball was all that I had. My career was over, my reputation was shot and everything that I had worked for was gone.''
Palmeiro has a private box at the Texas Rangers' ballpark, but he couldn't bring himself to watch baseball, live or on TV. He got involved in property development, and when he had free time, "I watched football.''
He said he doesn't understand why people think he would cheat, given that he already had 500 career home runs and was closing in on 3,000 hits.
"I don't want to take anything for granted, but there was a legitimate chance that I was going to get 3,000,'' Palmeiro said on Tuesday. "I had no motivation to take steroids because I was at the end of my career.''
Many BBWAA voters, however, don't buy Palmeiro's story. Several told SI.com this week that if he comes clean about his steroid use, it would help his chances of making Cooperstown.
"There are compassionate voters who would reward honesty,'' voter Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe told SI.com. "And at least he would stay on the ballot full-term, so we could put steroids use into proper context as the years go by.''
Bill Madden, a voter from the New York Daily News, doesn't think anything could change the mind of the voters. He said Palmeiro has a "zero'' chance of getting into the Hall of Fame. "And, there has never been a 3,000-hit guy who didn't make the Hall of Fame.''
Rick Hummel, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, didn't vote for Palmeiro on the first ballot and doesn't think he will unless Palmeiro has more of an explanation. Hummel said that if Palmeiro "itemized'' what he took and when, it would make a difference.
But, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said that Palmeiro's explanation didn't work in 2005 and probably won't work now. "He tried to explain it, and his problem was few thought his explanation was legitimate,'' Rosenthal said. He said that unless there was a "new bombshell'' of information, Palmeiro probably will never be in the Hall of Fame.
When Palmeiro was told that on Tuesday, he didn't quite know how to respond. "I miss baseball and I miss playing it," he said. "There's nothing more to the story, nothing more I can say. I have told the truth.''
Palmeiro played 20 seasons with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles. He's a four-time All-Star who won three Gold Gloves. His 569 home runs rank 12th, his 3,020 hits 24th and his 1,835 RBI are 15th.
He was the classic accumulator of statistics. He never led the league in home runs or RBIs, but he did lead the American League with 191 hits in 1990, 49 doubles in 1991 and 124 runs in 1993.
He hit at least 38 home runs with 104 RBIs a season from 1995 through 2003. He was a gap hitter who didn't hit jaw-dropping home runs. His body was a solid build, and not the shape of a cartoon character more associated with players on steroids.
But on March 17, 2005, when the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convened a hearing to investigate steroids in Major League Baseball and the effects on teenage athletes, Palmeiro was one of the premier athletes to testify.
During the hearing, which was on national TV, Jose Canseco said that steroids were rampant in baseball. McGwire pleaded the Fifth and said he wasn't going to talk about the past. Sammy Sosa spoke Spanish and pretended not to understand English.
Palmeiro, dressed in a black suit with gray pinstripes and a black tie, wagged his finger at the committee's chairmen, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and said in his opening statement: "Let me start by telling you this. I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.''
On July 15, 2005, in Seattle, Palmeiro reached 3,000 hits. Three weeks later, MLB announced that he had tested positive for steroids. In a conference call, Palmeiro said he was "embarrassed,'' and he had no idea how it happened.
While Palmeiro's career stats rank with those of elite Hall of Famers, his suspension aligns him with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, the poster boys for the Steroid Era.
McGwire is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the fifth year, but hasn't come close to the 75 percent of the vote needed for induction. He received 23.7 percent a year ago.
Bonds, who hit 762 home runs, and Clemens, who had 354 wins, are eligible for Cooperstown in two years, but each are being investigated for allegedly lying about their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Suspicions about performance-enhancement had long followed McGwire, and last year he admitted taking steroids during his career, including 1998, the season in which he hit 70 home runs to break Roger Maris' single-season record of 61.
Mel Antonen lives in Washington, D.C., and is a baseball analyst for Sirius-XM Radio. He covered baseball at USA Today for 25 years.